As he stared around at the chatter, the exclamations, and the sheer excitement in the crowd, Gou Ren realised that he still didn’t really get cultivation. Jin had explained the basics to them, of course. About how cultivators ascended in realms and got more powerful but none of them had been too interested in the details at the time. He had heard the stories too. But thinking about the Spiritual Realm or the Earth Realm, he didn’t know exactly where everything landed. Most of the stories just kind of mentioned this stuff off-hand, and he didn’t exactly read them himself. He would just sit down in front of Meimei when she had a scroll in hand, she’d give him the stink eye then start reading whatever story she was currently on aloud.
All he knew was that it must be pretty impressive, to have people spitting out their drinks. That one old man in the box across the arena had coughed so hard he spat out blood.
Gou Ren hoped he was alright.
“I’m guessing that’s pretty good?” he muttered to his brother, who shrugged. He didn’t seem too concerned, and was busy watching the odd stone shift colours. It was pretty neat.
“Pretty good?!” he heard a man sitting beside them splutter at his comment. “That's amazing, especially for the Azure Hills!”
Gou Ren turned to the man. He had long, slightly greasy hair, and looked downright offended by Gou Ren’s statement. His robe had a number of patches on it, and he had a small brush along with a pad of paper on his lap. The man looked the Xong brothers up and down, his eyes lingering on Gou Ren’s headband and Yun Ren’s scarf.
“You boys from up north?” he guessed.
Gou Ren nodded, a bit surprised at the man's insight. “Yeah. It's our first time watching something like this.”
His eyes went from accusatory to wide with enthusiasm.
“First time at a tournament! Well, allow this Tao the Traveller to enlighten you. You know the realms, correct?”
“Initiate, Profound, Spirit?” Yun Ren answered, leaning in curiously. “I think Heavenly and Earth goes in there somewhere.”
The man nodded his head. “Half right. Initiate, Profound, Spiritual, Earth, Sky, Imperial, and the last that we know of is the Heavenly, or Divine Realm, with five minor stages between each realm. A cultivator’s power in each step grows exponentially.”
Gou Ren nodded and asked. “Is that all the difference between the realms?”
“Well, there are also other differences. Other provinces say that Profound is when you become a ‘True’ cultivator, as that is when the body truly begins to change. An Initiate, they say, is just a mortal with power! Your flesh is just flesh. Your bones just bones. In the Profound realm, your body begins to harden, and grow beyond what you are at your birth. In other provinces, for a Youth Tournament like this, Profound would likely be the cutoff point for entry. I know that in the Immortal Flame Tournament in the Imperial Capital, one must be at least Spiritual.”
The man had started wagging his finger excitedly gesticulating as he talked, a bit like Meimei when she went entirely too deep into an explanation on medicine. He glanced at his brother, who rolled his eyes at the explanation, but neither interrupted.
“In the Spiritual Realm, your soul strengthens! It becomes a thing you can make tangible, to armour yourself entirely, to ward off attacks. It is also when most cultivators create their cores. A mass of solidified Qi that is the catalyst for further ascension. At the Earth Realm, their body is completely remade, their skin turns to jade and their bones transform into the hardest of metals! In the Sky Realm, a cultivator creates their Domain, imposing their spirit upon the world like the Cloudy Sword Sect’s Raging Cloudy Sword Formation!”
The man finished, his eyes gleaming.
“What about the Imperial and Heavenly ones?” Gou Ren asked out of curiosity.
Tao the Traveller shrugged. “I don’t know much, other than it is the realm of overwhelming power. They say the Endless Ocean was made by a cultivator in the Divine Realm, that our continent was once twice the size but was shattered by a single punch! It's amazing, isn’t it?”
Gou Ren grinned. To be able to split a continent in a single punch sounded so awesome— Then he paused, and thought about it for a second. In his mind, he hefted a rock onto his back that would need every man in the village to lift. He remembered Jin’s sad smile, his eyes serious, asking him.
“What do you want to do with power?”
Gou Ren clenched his fingers. He could grind rocks to dust by squeezing them. What would happen to a person?
A single swing obliterated Hong Yaowu.
He shook his head, shoving the thoughts away, and focusing again on the stone.
“But you boys are in for a treat!” Tao continued, “There's something special about these bouts. Like the fact that us mortals can actually see the cultivators still move! The tournament in the Howling Fang Mountains I went to, well, all I could see were the flashes from the techniques!”
Gou Ren raised an eyebrow.
“Why go watch it then?” he asked
“Why would I not! It was an amazing experience.” Tao declared, his eyes shining with passion. “I may not have any proper meridians of my own but I do get to see wonders like this! And in my home province as well.”
Gou Ren glanced at his brother, they both shrugged.
“You know much about this arena?” he asked.
Tao grinned. “Of course! See that gong up there?” he asked, pointing. “That is the Thunder of the Earth! Treasure of the Earthy Arena…”
The voice from below echoed, as the man launched into an explanation. Now this was a bit more interesting!
“Zang Wei! Second Stage of the Initiate’s Realm!” Bai Huizong boomed. The Resounding Crystal Dais beneath him hummed, as it took his words and echoed them for all to hear, but his voice was still straining from how much he had shouted earlier. He was still excited, and his tone reflected that. There was always a feeling of immense power when he stood here, his voice thundering like he was some manner of cultivator himself. He captured the minds of all who heard him.
Bai Huizong, His Imperial Majesty’s Director of Spiritual Ascension Affairs for the Azure Hills, loved his job. Even if his title was far grander than his duties actually entailed.
He was a glorified tourney host, most of the time. The Sects often wanted a “neutral” observer for these multi-sect events, and who better than one of their technical overlords. The Sects did their business, and like most in his position, as long as they committed no treasonous offense, he looked the other way when they were less than ideal in their behavior. What could he do, anyway? He was just a mortal man.
“Zei Lin, First Stage of the Initiate’s Realm!” He thundered, as the last person stepped away from the stone.
To his surprise, there was only a single mortal who had tried to sneak in this year. A record! Normally, the judgement Stone was there to weed out those with weak cultivation, but at this tournament there was technically no rule preventing them from participating. Such was the weakness of the Azure Hills, but they tended to get brutalized rather badly in the first round.
Except for once, where a tricky lad had managed to defeat an Initiate of the first stage, albeit through the ring-out rule that was implemented in the preliminaries. A sorry business, that. The Cultivator had committed suicide out of shame. The boy, who bowed out after his single victory, had later been found beaten to death by what he assumed was the Cultivator’s sectmates. The killer had never been found.
“Now that all have been Judged, we shall assign the brackets!” He said, gesturing to the set of tables by the walls. His men were already in position, and the rest of the labourers were preparing to cordon off the separate rings for the preliminary bouts.
Bai Huizong stepped off the Resounding Crystal Dais, and took the cloth that was offered by his assistant, mopping his damp forehead. It did take a bit out of him to use the device, and the sun’s rays were getting him quite hot.
He glanced around at the stands. Normally, this small preparatory period would have most people start to wander off, to go and bet, or to start to file out for some food after the long opening ceremony. Not so this time. Everyone in attendance was still glued to their seats discussing the outcome. The crowds were positively buzzing, and he could see those in the private seats discussing things excitedly, or in the cases of the Sects looking increasingly worried.
Huizong could not blame them.
Profound Realm. A cultivator who in her twenties had ascended to the Profound Realm. Such a thing just did not happen in the Azure Hills! The first in nearly a thousand years, if he remembered his history of the Summit correctly.
Huizong was supposed to be impartial, but he couldn’t help but enjoy this development. He would have to direct his company to make more Demon Slaying Orchid dolls. They were already a hit but this would surely bring him riches untold!
And the other surprise, Rou Tigu. An independent, no less! A girl coming out of nowhere with such a high cultivation was something straight out of a story. The “Official” tournament report would surely be a best seller this year as well.
Huizong looked idly at the brackets, as they started to form. They were already mostly decided. The Sects would never stand for their Young Masters and Mistresses knocking each other out in the preliminaries, so pitting them against each other was right out.
Indeed, Cai Xiulan was matched against a member of the Framed Sun Sect. It would have been a horrid mis-match before she fought Sun Ken.
Now? It was an execution.
He sat calmly in his seat, as the rest of the matches were drawn out. He drank some of the fine wine set nearby to wet his parched throat. The vast stone colosseum was showing its age, but it was still grand and awe inspiring. An edifice from before recorded history. The people sat in rows on stone benches, rising up into the sky. The Sect Masters were in their boxes, staring down at the grounds with frowns on their faces, stern and calculating.
“Sir. Starting bets are in,” one of his men whispered. “As expected, Cai Xiulan is the frontrunner, and our earnings are looking very good this year.”
Huizong smiled. “Excellent news. Any outliers?”
“No sir. Everything seems to be proceeding as it should be.”
“Good.” He glanced at the completed bracket. “And close the betting soon. We’ll be starting shortly.”
His clerk bowed, and strode away.
Huizong stood, and stretched. He cleared his throat, and stepped back onto the Resounding Crystal Dais.
“The stages are set! The combatants are ready! They shall abide by all virtues, and bring only glory to themselves and their sects!” his voice boomed out once more. All eyes were upon ring three, where Cai Xiulan stood calmly before her opponent. “Victory is by ring out, or submission!”
The contestants bowed to each other.
Huizong raised his hand. The men on top of the colosseum, on the west-facing mountain, shouted a command. A striker, a single piece of wood that seemed to be ten trees lashed together, was pulled back by hundreds of labourers. It was said there were once glowing characters upon the gong and the striker, but they had long since faded.
The men held their position on top of the arena. The sun glinted off the dull grey metal of the gong, The Thunder of theEarth. Impossibly ancient, and still unmarred by thousands of years of use.
Huizong lowered his hand sharply.
The men heaved the striker forwards, right into the center of the gong. A force that could surely shatter the gates of Pale Moon Lake City in a single blow hammered into the center of the gong.
The sound was indescribable, the strange shape of the arena and the mountains making it reverberate and harmonize.
“Begin!” he commanded.
The first bouts started.
And one of them ended.
The Junior of the Framed Sun Sect was outside the arena.
Cai Xiulan stood, her eyes calm and serene, with her palm on the boy’s chest.
She had not even drawn her blades. There was a slight cloud of dust, from where the boy’s feet had tried to dig in, and failed. In any other case, this would be a humiliating, devastating loss.
Instead, the boy looked relieved, as the Young Mistress of the Verdant blade pulled her hand back and bowed, gracing him with a smile. The boy’s face flushed, and he looked dazed, as he managed his own gesture of respect in return.
The crowds, predictably, went wild. There was another eruption of cheering, as the masses praised the Young Mistress’s restraint and benevolence. Mercy, as always, was the domain of the strong. The recording crystals of the sects were surely focused upon her, and they would likely be reviewing their recordings feverishly, searching for anything that they may use as an advantage.
The boy even received conciliatory looks from his sectmates on the sidelines, the Young Master of the Sect simply patting his shoulder.
It was a bit disappointing to know the winner before even the Tournament ended, but that was life sometimes. He only hoped that there was one who could provide her with enough challenge that there was a spectacle.
The next bout had nothing so exciting. Liu Xianghua, who would have made waves for being at the Fourth Stage of the Initiate’s realm, now seemed almost to be forgotten. She had a pensive look on her face, distracted, but it was still not enough to stop her from expertly slamming the pommel of her sword into her opponent's head, knocking him out.
The other fights, in comparison, were mostly quite tame. Swords clashed, and there was some blood and broken bones, but largely, they were expected outcomes.
The next bout had Rou Tigu, versus one of the Juniors of the Hermetic Iron Sect.
The wild-looking girl was bouncing from foot to foot, her eyes narrow as the man drew out a one handed hammer, and slammed his fist into the plates on his chest. He was looking nervous, as he faced off against a woman three stages above him.
The gong sounded.
Rou Tigu shot forward to slam her fist into the boy’s chest plate. He staggered backwards at the blow, the girl took no steps to chase him further or capitalize on the opening.
Instead, planting her hands on her hips, she shouted something at the boy. Then she went in again, sending out a light jab to his face that rocked his head to the side. Then she retreated, watching him with narrowed eyes. She played with him like a cat with a mouse.
The crowd, of course, loved it. They laughed and jeered as she danced around the taller boy, striking him with impunity
What a vicious little creature, toying with him so! He could only imagine what insults she was shouting at her opponent, and what abuse he was suffering!
Off to the side, the Young Master of the Hermetic Iron Sect had to be restrained, his face flushed red in anger, indignant on the behalf of the injury inflicted to his junior.
He could almost see the finals now. The serene Cai Xiulan, versus the wild Rou Tigu. The villainous, mocking girl versus the noble Verdant Blade!
Huizong sat back to watch the show.
Tigu struggled to hold back a yawn, as she started to repeat the same moves. She had been so excited for her first bout, ready for the enjoyable time that was to come. And then the Blade of Grass had finished her fight in the time it took her to blink. And as she had stared around at the others, at the fighters she was supposed to play with, they— well, they disappointed.
This one looked promising enough, with his armour and his mallet, but the way he swung it was so strange. Halfway between a man who used a mallet to carve stone, and Uncle Che, with his hammering of iron. She supposed that may be the case, as he had many interesting engravings upon his armor and hammer. The fight may not be interesting, but these were. They were pleasing to the eye, and that soothed some of her irritation.
He was a tall, lanky one, and when Tigu tested his defenses, she nearly threw him out of the arena! It was shocking! Ri Zu put up a better fight than him!
At least he was learning, though. Tigu’s hand flashed out, and this time, the boy managed to interpose his hammer. His eyes widened, in pride and accomplishment, his eyes meeting Tigu’s.
She nodded, and pushed. The boy skidded backwards and tripped, falling out of the arena. Perhaps, if she came to another tourney, he would put up a better fight the next time?
She bowed, as a “virtuous bearing” demanded, and the boy bowed back.
“Worry not about this loss, Junior Brother. I shall repay her a hundred-fold for what she did!” a voice boomed. There were a couple of shouts, and a commotion from off to the side.
“And it appears the Young Master of the Hermetic Iron Sect has taken to the field!” the fat man on the podium shouted excitedly.
Tigu turned as a man approached, and her eyes widened. He had a small splattering of freckles on his cheeks, but his form. Oh, his form was intriguing!
He was the right height, his muscles defined, his form cut perfectly. With his engraved armor, and his bearing, he would make a fine sculpture! Not as fine a sculpture as her Master, but she would still ask him later. He was the only one so far who tickled her urge to craft.
The man had one arm reaching back to his hammer, when her opponent stepped in front of him.
“She was telling me how to properly block her blows!” her opponent, Lanky Hammer, exclaimed. “We were trading pointers, and she was most kind to me, Senior Brother.”
The tall man paused, his eyes roving all over her opponent’s body, checking for damage.
“She spent the entire time telling me that my blocking was inefficient, and that to properly disrupt a faster foe, I needed to have a looser stance. The second to last hit, before she removed me from the arena… was the same as her first. I managed to block it,” Lanky Hammer said proudly, as he should be! Tigu had taught him, which naturally made him just slightly superior to others here!
The big man still looked a bit confused, and his face which had been a dark red took on a more pleasing bronze shade.
“Is this true?” he asked Tigu.
“Yes! His carvings were quite pleasing, and though it was a boring fight, I decided to trade pointers with him. Perhaps next time, he will be a good fight,” she said with a shrug.
She looked all over the freckled man’s body. He was covered in light scars and carvings. He would make an excellent subject!
Slowly, a tentative smile formed on his face.
“I thank you for taking care of my junior, then,” he said, bowing slightly..
Tigu smiled back.“Your freckles and muscles are quite pleasing! You remind me of my master! I hope to meet you in combat later,”—What could be a good name for this one?—“Handsome Man!”
Yes, that one worked. He was certainly far more appealing than any of the others here. So tiny and thin! Not worth sculpting at all!
The man’s face went red again, his jaw dropped. Tigu waved goodbye to them both, and wandered back to her section.
But she couldn’t ignore how much her shirt was shaking, nor the little squeaks of mirth.
“Hm? What is so funny, Ri Zu?” she asked.